How to Understand Others: Mind, Feeling, and Emotion

Podcast Transcript: Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world. Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the book “Seeing and Being” by H. Clay Trumbull, published in 1889.

There is a universal truth that many of us fail to realize as we go through life. That is, unless we really like a person, especially persons of profound character and wisdom, we will not be likely to understand them, their words, or their life in its totality. Without the insight which sympathy gives, we cannot penetrate the recesses of their mind and character, so as to know them as they truly are, and to understand their sayings and actions as they intend them to be understood.

The common belief is that, in order to come into sympathy with someone, and to like them deeply, you must first know them thoroughly and understand them as they are; but the truer truth is that, in many cases, the sympathy and liking must PRECEDE the understanding; and that the worthier one is of being loved and admired, the more difficulty there is of understanding them until you DO love them, or until in some way you come to have a feeling of kinship with them.

There are persons, to be sure, who show themselves at the best on the surface, and who in fact have nothing but surface to show. Seeing them once, you know them as well as you could know them if you were to see them a thousand times. There is nothing to be wondered at or questioned over in their case; there is no mystery there; no need of the insight of sympathy to give you an understanding of them, and of their sayings and doings.

You like them or you dislike them at the start — or you have no sense of either like or dislike in their case — and you have never a reason, afterward, to change your opinion of them; for you can never have any different basis of opinion.

But there are other persons who show very little of themselves on the surface, who have depths of character not to be fathomed at a glance. You are conscious that you do not understand them fully to begin with. And the more you see of them, and study them, the less confident you are of your real acquaintance with their thoughts and habits of feeling; and the surer you are that there is a great deal yet to be learned about them before you can know them thoroughly.

They may be exceedingly attractive in their manners and bearing, yet they are unapproachable beyond a certain point. Or, they may be in a measure repellent to you, and yet you feel compelled to study them by an undefined sense of their hidden power. These are the sort of persons who can never be understood except through the insight of sympathy, who must be thoroughly appreciated before they can even be studied to advantage.

Unless you come to be at one with them in feeling, if not in thought, you can never know them at their best, or know them as they are. It is not the coarser, but the finer, fiber of the soul that is hidden from the outer gaze. It is the gentler, lovelier side of a refined nature that shrinks from exposure to every eye.

There are the hearts that ache for love and sympathy that cannot ask for either love or sympathy. Timid and sensitive, with all their longing for friendship and fellowship of soul, they cannot give a single look or word of personal interest or attachment when affection for (and sympathy with them) is not already manifest.

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